Henry Miller, Weird Ideas, and “Damned Facts”

Joshua Buhs’ essay in the latest Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal (“‘One measures a circle, beginning anywhere’: Henry Miller and the Fortean Fantasy”) begins with a casual reference to Charles Fort, made by Henry Miller in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch: “People are constantly supplying me with startling facts, amazing events, incredible experiences – as if I were another Charles Fort.” (149)

Charles Fort (1874 – 1932) wrote works that seemed to call into question scientific explanations of the world, by accusing science of ignoring facts that it could not explain – the “damned facts” of supernatural phenomena. (152) But all the while he didn’t claim to be a philosopher or scientist: “I’m just a writer”, he said. (153) So Fort allowed himself a sort of ironic detachment from his claims for the paranormal: “I shall be accused of having assembled lies, yarns, hoaxes, and superstitions . . . To some degree I think so, myself. To some degree I do not. I offer the data.” (153) There was a philosophical basis for Fort’s project too: Fort was a “monist”, meaning he believed “there are no positive differences” between things, and so one fact is in principle as valuable as any other. (152) So even the “damned facts” have value, and need to be rescued and brought to people’s attention.

Buhs is interested in what Miller and Fort had in common: “The most striking resemblance between Fort and Miller . . . is that both, ultimately, were engaged in a similar project: rescuing what had been lost, making holy what had been damned – and creating a more complete understanding of the universe.” Just as Fort wanted to draw attention to claims people made about supernatural phenomena in order that these “damned facts” not be ignored, Miller also wanted to draw attention to the kinds of things people often ignore: occult ideas, the struggles of minorities and the poor, and those things we might ordinarily label “obscene”. (162)

Why this interest in what is damned or forgotten? On the subject of obscenity, Buhs quotes Miller: “When obscenity crops up in art, in literature more particularly, it usually functions as a technical device . . . Its purpose is to awaken, to usher in a sense of reality.” (162) By drawing on what is ordinarily damned or ignored, the writer is able to surprise the reader, creating an effect, heightening awareness. Buhs borrows Michael Saler’s term “ironic imagination” to describe the way Miller would use a strange idea to deepen understanding: “Neither Miller nor Fort . . . worried much if that fantasy was true or not. Miller declaimed a lot about the need to reach an absolute truth, an absolute surety – but he was willing to get there even by means he knew might be untrustworthy.” (163)

What I like about Buhs’ essay is the way he connects Miller with “writers of the weird”: he also mentions Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft, for example. (154, 158, 164) When we read fantasy writers, we entertain impossible ideas of monsters and magic, and by doing so we often get a deepened sense of what is means to be human, mad, afraid; a sense of the uncanny – we are moved by stories that we know are fiction. What Buhs shows us is that Miller encourages the same kind of “ironic imagination” from his readers as fantasy writers might expect from theirs – whether Miller is writing about astrology, flying saucers or Dianetics, the thing to do is to entertain the weird ideas to find new depths within yourself.

(Page numbers refer to Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, Volume 11, 2016)

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